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Art school community calls for transition plan after district announces takeover of managing artists’ contracts

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Members of the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts community have started a petition to advocate for a transition plan around changes to the school’s Artists-in-Residence program. (Mike Koozmin/2015 S.F. Examiner)

Parents and members of the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts community launched a petition urging the school district to create an action plan with their input around phasing in changes to the governance of the school’s renowned Artists-in-Residence program.

The San Francisco Unified School District announced in April that starting next school year it would reclaim control of the program that for decades has placed professional artists in classrooms at the public arts high school. For the last ten years, the program was managed by Friends of RASOTA, the school’s nonprofit fundraising arm.

The district also stated it would not renew an annual contract that allowed the nonprofit to provide direct services to the school.

“The community was not involved in making this decision,” reads the petition to SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews and Deputy Superintendent Brad Stam. “It was further communicated that steps for replacing the entire structure of the ongoing management of the arts programs via the partnership between the school and our nonprofit booster organization had been decided upon and would be implemented immediately — also without the input of the Asawa SOTA community.”

Launched by the group San Francisco Parents for the Arts (SF PARTS) earlier this month, the petition had gathered 1,528 signatures as of Saturday, with a goal of 2,500.

The group is demanding the district schedule three meetings between the nonprofit, the school’s leadership, parents, the Board of Education and Matthews before June 30 to “create an action plan and calendar for any changes that may be implemented.”

Changes to the program and its management should be phased in over time “in order to avoid significant disruption to the students’ educational experience,” as well as to the artists hiring process and fundraising efforts, according to the group.

A phased transition would require a renewal of the nonprofit’s memorandum of understanding, which expires this fall, by the Board of Education.

“We are weeks away from end of school year. There is no time for department heads to rethink how they are going to engage with artists,” said Cynthia Francis, a RASOTA parent alumni and member of SF PARTS. “The reason the nonprofit was developed in the first place was because the district had a responsibility for hiring the artists and paying them, and people were waiting for six to 12 months to get paid.”

Since 2008, Friends of RASOTA’s contract with the district has allowed the nonprofit to legally fundraise to hire artist teachers as independent contractors, manage parent donations and funds raised from ticket sales at events and student performances, as well as the artists’ background checks, contracts and pay.

The program was administered at a cost of about $587,000 this year, according to Colleen Ivie, the nonprofit’s director. In the 2016-17 school year, the nonprofit raised nearly $1 million through parent donations, ticket sales for student art performances, grants and donations from sources outside of the school’s community.

The nonprofit has been criticized for a lack of transparency in regard to its finances by school board members, who do not review it’s expenditures or revenue. A school district spokesperson told the San Francisco Examiner in April that no allegations of mismanagement had been made by the district.

Following the district’s decision to drop the nonprofit from the AIR program, parents have expressed concerns over how the change would impact current students’ arts education and how their donations will be handled by the district.

District leaders have met twice with RASOTA parents and faculty to discuss the changes, but several parents in attendance said they were not asked for input.

“That meeting was not called as a discussion. It was a presentation of ‘This is what is happening. The ship sailed, get on board,’” said Francis.

SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick said the “school’s administration of the AIR Program has been discussed for several years and the decision to implement this transition is based in thorough analysis.”

Dudnick said the district is in the process of “making use of long-standing legally sanctioned accounts,” including the School Trust Fund and Associated Student Body accounts, which are governed by state law.

“Donations from the nonprofit, or donations from parents or community members, can be made directly to the school for the specific purpose of supporting the AIR program,” Dudnick said, adding that ticket sales from student performances will also be deposited into the school’s account, which will be administered by the school’s principal. The district also plans to hire additional support staff at the campus, including a third assistant principal to help manage the program.

“There is ongoing communication between the FoSOTA Board, the Ruth Asawa PTSA and the school’s administration, and the school is planning implementation strategy meetings with student and staff advisory groups,” Dudnick said.

But the petition also calls on the district to address a lack of trust among the school’s community that was exacerbated by the recent announcement.

“Excluding our community from decisions which directly impact its well-being has the potential for continued misunderstandings and ultimately a negative effect on our students,” reads the petition.

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